REVIEW: Karen Jonas – ‘Country Songs’

As we get all reflective about 2016 and the quality of the country music that has enriched our lives this year, there is a glaring omission in our review lists that we had to rectify before year end. Karen Jonas released her sophomore album ‘Country Songs’ in mid-October and it would be entirely remiss of us if we didn’t tell you how damn good this is.

This is the follow up to ‘Oklahoma Lottery’ which she released in 2014 and it’s been well worth the wait. There’s not a great deal to say regarding a back story. She hails from Fredericksburg in Virginia and admits that her love and passion for country music came about relatively recently. She works with guitarist Tim Bray who has a pedigree in the regional Virginia scene and they always perform as a duo. It is Karen’s song writing and her very distinctive vocal style that are the story here.

The first album was released with very little pre-release publicity and expectations. It received a very positive reception from those country fans who discovered it, enabling Karen to lay down her musical roots and grow as a country music artist. Perhaps more importantly, those who did discover her music loved it and eagerly anticipated the follow up. The second album continues her development, coupled with a few choice live slots with established artists. She recently opened for Brandy Clark on Brandy’s US tour.

The first single release from the album is the title track ‘Country Songs’ which is basically a very good country song about country songs! “When I was young I never cared for country songs. The Honky Tonks they all seemed strange to me, but honey since you’ve gone now I’ve realised that I’m wrong got to get your heart broken before you can sing along”.

We’re not sure about the broken heart but for someone who admits to a sparse country music heritage she sure has embraced the genre. The name checks and reverence that she bestows upon country greats, particularly Dwight Yoakam, and the use of steel guitar and fiddle combine to make a song that meets the expectation level that her first album created.

Her vocal style is interesting. A little folky at times and also soulful with a distinct vibrato. Her guitar playing also seems to be a style that she has perfected. Her technique negates the need for percussion in her live shows as her thumb acts as the bass drum. The album is recorded entirely live but in a studio setting and most of the 10 tracks are based exclusively upon the musicianship that she and Tim Bray create. The result is an album of songs that require very little tinkering in her live shows.

The strength of the album is her song writing. From the upbeat man chiding ‘Keep Your Hands To Yourself’ to ‘The Fair Shake’ which tells of walking away from someone who doesn’t treat you the way you try to treat others. Her songs are created with heartache and awareness.

‘Wasting Time’ is where the album reaches its peak. Having said that, it’s probably the least country sounding song on offer despite the haunting slide guitar from Jay Starling. The awesome electric guitar accompaniment from Bray adds significantly to the haunting vocals that create one of the best ballads that we have heard this year.

There seems to be a door opening for traditionally sounding female country artists. Margo Price and Kelsey Waldron are finding their way and Karen Jonas has everything that it takes to find her way too. Whether ‘Country Songs’ will be a stepping stone will depend upon the usual factors that are not based on talent.

We are late to this party but in a year of very good music, we couldn’t let this little gem slip by.